Why is it that we seem to have an institutional hostility to marriage? Is it a code of silence you swear (a sort of Whitehall omertà) on getting access to the civil service fast stream, or an algorithm installed on Whitehall laptops? A simple search for the term “marriage” in the Government’s levelling up white paper uncovers a single reference, which showed being married is a big predictor of life satisfaction. There it is in black and white, evidence of what most people readily understand: having a long term companion who sticks with you through thick and thin is actually quite good for your general wellbeing. Getting the nation smiling is national mission number 8 of 12 according to this enormous tomb of policy. But it contains nothing on marriage, other than this solitary, easily overlooked piece of evidence.
Marriage shouldn’t be a middle-class perk
It’s probably not a surprise, but you have to go back to the days of David Cameron to find a government willing to mention the “m” word. Even then it was crowbarred into official documents against a hostile civil service and many other members of his cabinet. You have to go back to the Duke of Grafton in 1769 to find a Prime Minister who divorced in office like our incumbent, who is also the first in 200 years to get married while in Number 10.
In a pre-Covid piece of number crunching, researchers at the Marriage Foundation did some analysis with academics at the University of Lincoln and found that children with married parents had significantly reduced odds of suffering mental health problems in adolescence. Mental health is a real national mission of the day. The finding went largely unnoticed, of course, and was certainly not to be picked up by officialdom observing their elective mutism on this issue.
Talking about marriage doesn’t have to be unpopular. After all, upwards of 75 per cent of young adults actively aspire to it. It would be odd if the Government didn’t support this aspiration. It’s not that unpopular outside Westminster. When pollsters have asked the public about politicians talking about marriage, they don’t recoil in horror or theatrically faint. In fact, there is quite a bit of public support out there for the institution, and even governments spending a bit of money giving married couples a tax break for tying the knot.
Our political class need to get over their bizarre reluctance to talk about this issue and find their voice. Middle class couples (including most politicians) understand the importance of family stability. The latest birth data shows a child growing up in a poorer household is six times more likely to see their parents separate than their better off neighbours. Marriage shouldn’t be a middle-class perk, but it too often is.
What happens at home tends to spill over into the classroom
This year we will probably spend more than £800 million of public money supporting married couples to be married, although it surely can’t be long before a future Chancellor chops it from a Budget to spend on plugging leaky public finances. What is less talked about, is the financial penalties faced by couples in receipt of welfare and a pay packet: an insidious peculiarity of the tax and benefits system that pays out if you live apart rather than together. Fixing these penalties would be a good first start.
In our schools, what happens at home tends to spill over into the classroom. If we are stuck with “levelling up” as a phrase, then we shouldn’t be so squeamish about what happens at home in a quest to offer opportunities to young people who have very few in life. What happens at home matters, and the evidence seems to point to the stability of your family as mattering even more. Between the ages of 4-16, a typical child will only spend about a fifth of their time at school. Ministers provide a nod to this by promising to look at “place” in relation to families. I’m not quite sure what that means either.
Moral righteousness has long left our political arena. Our political leaders should find a way of talking about the impact of family conflict and relationships breaking down, especially when it involves children. Few people pretend this is the only thing that matters, but talking about the consequences of families breaking up should be part of the political conversation.
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